Friday, February 4, 2011

Going Out While Still On Top

The White Stripes broke up on Wednesday, or at least they broke up as much as a band that hasn't released new material in four years can break up. Their website announced that the group was calling it quits, "for a myriad of reasons, but mostly to preserve what is beautiful and special about the band and have it stay that way."

This is a nice sentiment, particularly because Jack White could easily write a dozen short riffs, get a drum machine with Meg White's face pasted on it, and call it a new White Stripes album. While few would argue that the band's last album, 2007's Icky Thump, was their best, it's safe to say that the White Stripes never released a bad record, let alone an embarrassing one. I'd be willing to be money that a new White Stripes release would sell reasonably well, so it's refreshing to see the duo opt to not continue. 

In this age when many artists manage to stretch their fifteen minutes of fame into fifteen years, when long forgotten celebrities start popping up on reality television, it's nice to see some figures who willingly choose to end their career before senility or overexposure sets in. It certainly doesn't hurt that the White Stripes have a handful of platinum albums to provide a good financial cushion (and that Jack White has a seemingly endless supply of other bands to fall back on), But the band is breaking up, not due to internal acrimony or somebody's death, but because they said all that they need to say and now they're done. The number of major acts who do this are rare enough that I can probably go through them all in this one post. 

Perhaps the most famous act to go out while still on top is Seinfeld. The series is an iconic piece of the nineties, and by the time it had reached its ninth season in 1998, the "show about nothing" was number one in the Nielsen ratings, and had garnered the most viewers out of any season yet. By all rights, the show should have limped its way to a slow death Friends-style, with another three or four excruciatingly melodramatic seasons. This is television, after all, the medium in which hit shows only die after all the main characters have had sex with all the other main characters, and possibly all gotten pregnant as a result. 

But Seinfeld went out pretty much at the top of its game. As Jerry Seinfeld told Time Magazine, "I just know from being onstage for years and years and years, there's one moment where you have to feel the audience is still having a great time, and if you get off right there, they walk out of the theater excited. And yet, if you wait a little bit longer and try to give them more for their money, they walk out feeling not as good. If I get off now I have a chance at a standing ovation. That's what you go for." 

And while the finale might have left a few viewers cold, there's no denying that the show departed while still on top, leaving behind no embarrassing attempts at increasing its audience. Is there another show that willingly ended the very same season it was number one in the ratings? To this day, if a syndicated episode of Seinfeld comes on TBS, I know that's it's probably going to be good, because there was never a dud season. The cast was classy enough to end it on their own terms. 

Popular comic strips are perhaps even harder to kill than popular television shows - even death itself does not stop a perennial comic from being published in your newspaper every morning. That's why the dual retirement of Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes) and Gary Larson (The Far Side) was so surprising. Larson called it quits on January 1st, 1995, and Watterson followed in his footsteps on December 31st of the same year. 

The loss of two excellent strips was saddening at the time - both remain some of the best comics to ever grace the funny pages. But it's also comforting to know that their legacy is intact. Watterson famously balked at any sort of licensing agreements for his characters, and it's largely thanks to him that Hobbes hasn't gone the way of Garfield and Marmaduke to star as a CGI pet in  the movies. Larson restrained his marketing to tasteful desk calendars, and donated the profits to conservation organizations. The comics page is less funny now, but I'd rather have ten years worth of good Calvin and Hobbes strips than thirty years worth of mediocrity. 

Of course, in the attempt to retire with an untarnished reputation, some artists might take it too far. For example, Harper Lee's refusal to publish anything after To Kill a Mockingbird has confused many critics, leading to some conspiracy theories that she didn't write the book at all and it was really the product of Truman Capote. Stephen King comments on Lee in his autobiographical On Writing: "If God gives you something you can do, why in God’s name wouldn’t you do it?"

Lee's self-imposed silence is sad, but perhaps preferable to the alternative. I'd posit that it's much more difficult to restrain yourself after one success than it is to keep churning out works long after your expiration date. Harper Lee's fabled unfinished second novels are one of literature's great "What Ifs?", but it's better to live with a "what-if" than a "why-this". Perhaps Lee said all she needed to say. 

It's worth pointing out that all the above names I mentioned were successful enough to be able to afford an early retirement. It's certainly a luxury, and celebrities need to pay the bills just like anybody else. Perhaps if To Kill a Mockingbird hadn't sold as well, Lee would have published ten novels. I certainly don't hold it against those artists who continue to work - it's a career like any other, after all. And perhaps in ten years, when Meg White has some back-owed property taxes to pay off, we'll see a White Stripes reunion album. If this happens, I won't hold it against the band. 

But the fact that self-imposed retirement is so rare is interesting to me. There's something incredibly classy and tasteful about those artists who are willing to admit they've reached their peak and, rather than outstaying their welcome, leave the audience wanting more. Exeunt the White Stripes. Well done.